Philip Neri, John Henry Newman, and the Idea of an Oratory
I sought to hear the voice of God
And climbed the topmost steeple,
But God declared: “Go down again–
I dwell among the people.”
Put that little poem in your web browser and you’ll find it attributed to Blessed John Henry Newman, but don’t believe it; there is not a single citation supporting his authorship.
The poem is also attributed to Louis Israel Newman, a twentieth-century Reform Rabbi and scholar; but, again, no credible citation seems to exist.
Since its origins are nebulous, I’ve decided to be bold and attribute “The Voice of God” to good old Anonymous and include here a reminder that the internet is a hellhole of misattributions, so if you’re posting a favorite quote somewhere, do—for the sake of writers, students, and readers, everywhere—try to include the original source. Your children will thank you.
Now, why did I care so much about whether John Henry Newman had penned the words?
Because they so very well reflect the driving force behind Saint Philip Neri’s founding of the Congregation of the Oratory, to which Newman belonged.
Cardinal Newman famously wrote on The Idea of a University, but when I first encountered Saint Philip Neri (for whom Newman wrote both a litany and a novena), I rather wished Newman had described “The Idea of the Oratory” because no matter how much research I did on Philip, I just couldn’t get it.
What was the idea of the Oratory? What was Philip Neri—this immensely holy “Third Apostle of Rome” (after Peter and Paul) and great friend to Ignatius of Loyola and Charles Borromeo—all about in founding this unusual Congregation which brought secular priests together for a common mission without actually vowing them to a religious order?
And what exactly was the mission?
Philip himself was a man of contradictions—he was a prankster who took the sacraments so seriously he would sometimes spend an entire day hearing confessions.
- He was a believer in obedience who resisted becoming a priest and, when offered a cardinal’s hat, politely declined.
- He was outgoing and gregarious and yet developed the solemn and silent Forty Hours Devotion.
- He loved a good picnic and a hike, and would invite anyone along, but the party would always turn into a pilgrimage as he urged his companions to stop and make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, in every church they passed—a habit which eventually developed into the Seven Churches pilgrimage.
- He encouraged cheerfulness and optimism, but helped create one of Rome’s first ersatz hospitals and often dove into the difficult work of treating those suffering in both body and spirit.
Over time, I have grown to love Neri as a true friend and teacher, but I still struggled with the idea of the Oratory; a place for Mass and for the performance of plays and political debate? Was the sacred being profaned, or the secular being sacralized? How exactly did that work?
It was only after participating in a symposium at the Brooklyn Oratory of St. Boniface that I came to see what a powerful and prophetic gift Philip Neri had given to the Church.
The Oratory is powerful because it is beautiful. Philip Neri always argued for beauty as the necessary attraction that leads us to the good and the true. Before the symposium, there was celebrated a High Mass, and it was everything the Mass should be: holy, reverent, mindful, warm, and welcoming. Like Neri, it was a liturgy both serious and full of joy. It was beautiful in participation; beautiful in homiletics; beautiful in its spare simplicity; beautiful—heartstoppingly so—in its music, which was facilitated by a splendidly-voiced organ and a professional-grade choir of which Neri’s other great friend, Palestrina, would doubtless have approved.
The Oratory is prophetic because Philip Neri understood that while the Church needs its gorgeous buildings and sanctuaries to give us instruction and delight through our senses, and while she needs the ballast of rules and rubrics to keep a universal barque in balance, what is additionally (and as importantly) required is a laity that understands its faith and has learned how to thoughtfully integrate the ways of heaven with all of our earthly encounters. A laity that can engage with the times without becoming absorbed by them because it understands that—despite trends and polities and movements—“the true servant of God acknowledges no other country but heaven.”
The Oratory is the fruit of Neri’s vision of the Church coming out to meet the world, and the world willingly stepping inside.
This is what I saw at the Brooklyn Oratory. After the liturgy, which had truly been a “taste of heaven,” the Oratory prepared for earth. As people removed to another space and shared “potluck” breakfast, the Presence was reverently (and discreetly) reposed elsewhere and the Oratory became that place of talk and gathering and mind-meeting that Philip intended. Invited speakers shared their thoughts; guests in attendance asked questions, agreed or disagreed; there was some laughter, some tension, even a few tears. There was head-on engagement and, at the parting, sincere and respectful good wishes, and expressed hopes to meet again, “perhaps at next week’s concert,” or the following week’s class.
This has been the Oratorian mission for the last five hundred years. Long before Pope Francis suggested that the Church open its doors and go out to meet the world, Oratorians have been stepping outside and bringing people in, meeting for the simple sake of community and Christ—making everyone feel like they really do have a place in the Church and in the pew—and then giving room for the Holy Spirit to work things toward God’s purposes, an idea which Philip endorsed completely, saying, “All of God’s purposes are to the good; although we may not always understand this we can trust in it.”
This is evangelism that speaks its mind and allows another mind to speak back, and—as Rumer Godden would say—“mind on mind kindles warmth.” When you step outside, you want to bring that warmth, that sense of brotherhood and charity, out into the streets with you.
Perhaps that’s why in England they are talking about “the unstoppable rise of the Oratorians” in the midst of this cold, polarized world, and why Father Roger Landry would like to see Philip Neri named Patron of the New Evangelization.
“[Neri] preferred to yield to the stream, and direct the current, which he could not stop, of science, literature, art, and fashion, and to sweeten and to sanctify what God had made very good and man had spoilt.” (Bl. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, Discourse 9)